Forestry needs more carrot and less stick

The forestry industry plays a huge role in rural parts of Scotland. Picture: Contributed
The forestry industry plays a huge role in rural parts of Scotland. Picture: Contributed
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Sector that offers so much deserves equality writes Stuart Goodall.

In life, everyone wants to be treated fairly, to be judged objectively on the evidence. The forestry and wood sector is no different.

The sector has changed almost beyond recognition from the 1970s and 80s, but that change has gone largely unnoticed.

Forestry and wood makes a massive contribution to rural Scotland – it supports 40,000 jobs, drives annual investment of around £50 million and delivers economic growth. Without planting trees and making wood products, Scotland hasn’t a hope of meeting its world-leading climate change targets, especially if it also wishes to support rural communities, increase biodiversity and deliver a wide range of social and recreational benefits.

Forestry can deliver on all these agendas and a sector with so much to offer deserves fair and equal treatment - but often doesn’t get it. Why, when the forestry sector has worked hard with environmental bodies since the 1980s to develop exceptionally strict standards for managing our woodlands?

Forest management in Scotland is subject to wide-ranging, detailed standards developed by the Forestry Commission in consultation with environmental and social groups. Most forests are also independently certified under an international standard endorsed by leading environmental groups including Greenpeace, WWF, RSPB and Woodland Trust.

No other land use in Scotland is independently audited to such an international sustainability benchmark.

What this means in practice is that when a modern productive forest is planted, at least 15 per cent of the woodland area is set aside to encourage biodiversity. Strict controls are in place to promote water quality and the forest is designed to blend with the landscape.

With all this, we would expect to be recognised as a responsible, professional sector and treated as such. In reality, forestry is still not given parity with more established sectors like farming; farmers are usually compensated if they are expected to change their behaviour, whereas foresters simply see the rules changed.

Our sector understands that behavioural change is always about carrots and sticks - but forestry seems to get all the sticks, despite trying to do the right thing - creating sustainable, low-carbon businesses which work to high standards of quality, assurance and safety. The Forest Industry Safety Accord, established in 2012, is an excellent example of driving up standards. More than 600 businesses have signed up to the Accord, promising to operate by its guidelines and work on the principle that any serious injury can be prevented.

Part of the problem is perhaps the dated view of the sector, with many fixated on historic 1970s plantations. Things aren’t like that now – modern productive forests are diverse and attractive and can deliver enormous public benefits with minimal public support.

Forestry and wood is a successful sector and it is finding its voice. It has a big part to play in the future of rural Scotland and wants to be a good neighbour, so we will do more to work with communities to show the benefits forestry can bring, but also to understand and address concerns those communities might have, for example around timber haulage.

Forestry and wood processing provides comparatively well-paid employment, diverse opportunities and increasing income into rural communities. Later this year, Confor will produce video and animation designed to communicate what the sector does. It is hoped that this will promote greater understanding, and hopefully support, for forestry and wood.

At a recent flood risk management event, scientists and researchers stressed the value of trees, forests and large woody debris in reducing flooding and retaining storm water in the uplands. It was clear from their research that any tree cover was better than the bare hills which often dominate Scotland’s uplands - yet any new planting proposal of any scale requires expensive Environmental Impact Assessments and up to three years to get permission.

At the flood management conference, a speaker talking about increasing tree cover in riparian zones said “fishermen need to be placated, and farmers compensated”…while foresters are regulated. In simple terms, it’s not sensible that anglers are thrown a fish, farmers have a carrot dangled before them - but foresters just get the stick.

• Stuart Goodall is Chief Executive of Confor: promoting forestry and wood www.confor.org.uk

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